Armed soldiers sit on top of a military vehicle in Harare early on Wednesday © AP

Explosions were reported in Harare on Wednesday morning, hours after armoured personnel carriers had been spotted on the outskirts of the Zimbabwean capital and a day after the country’s army chief warned that his forces could step in to settle bitter factional infighting within President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party.

Reuters and The Associated Press reported that blasts had been heard and troops had been seen on the streets of Harare. The former also reported that soldiers had overrun the headquarters of the country’s state broadcaster, ZBC.

The US embassy in Harare said in a tweet that it continued to monitor the situation closely and would be closed to the public on Wednesday “due to ongoing uncertainty in Zimbabwe”.

Although the military vehicles seen earlier in the day had not moved into the centre of the Zimbabwean capital, the unusual display was seen as a show of force under the guise of a training drill.

Witnesses said the APCs moved from the Inkomo barracks north of Harare toward the headquarters of Mr Mugabe’s presidential guard. Infrastructure in the capital, including phones and power lines, remained working as normal and state broadcasting was unaffected.

© AP

A day earlier, General Constantino Chiwenga, the head of the armed forces, held a rare press conference in which he said the military would not “hesitate to step in” to “protect the revolution”. Many interpreted his statement as a warning against Mr Mugabe, who has ruled the southern African nation with an iron grip since independence from Britain in 1980.

Tensions have been high since last week when Mr Mugabe, at 93 the world’s oldest national leader, fired his deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa, who subsequently fled into exile claiming threats against his life. The sacking of Mr Mugabe’s presumed successor has triggered fears of a purge of his supporters and has raised concern among some in the military that Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, is seeking to manoeuvre herself into pole position to succeed her husband.

Mr Mnangagwa is a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation war and a close ally of Gen. Chiwenga.

Many in Zimbabwe’s military view Mrs Mugabe, 40 years her husband’s junior and the president’s former secretary, as an interloper lacking in the political acumen to lead the party or the country.

Lloyd Msipa, an analyst at the Africa Public Policy Research Institute, who is monitoring the situation from London, said: “There’s a general disquiet within the barracks.” Officials in military intelligence had indicated that Tuesday’s manoeuvres were intended as a show of the army’s strength, he said. The situation remained unpredictable, he added.

Mr Mugabe has not responded to Gen Chiwenga’s apparent threat.

But on Tuesday, his Zanu-PF party accused Gen Chiwenga of “treasonous conduct” over his statement, saying it was “clearly calculated to disturb national peace and stability” and “meant to incite insurrection and violent challenge to the constitutional order”, Zanu-PF “will never succumb to any threats”, the spokesperson added.

One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had definitely been APCs on the streets, which was unusual but not unprecedented. He had received unverified reports that up to 10 military vehicles had been spotted, though they appeared to have returned to barracks by early evening.

Ibbo Mandaza, a former senior member of Zanu-PF, played down the prospects of a coup. He described Gen Chiwenga’s Monday statement as “garbled” and asked rhetorically whether an army chief intent on overthrowing the government would really make a statement in advance.

Piers Pigou, an expert on Zimbabwe with the International Crisis Group, said he was puzzled by Mr Mugabe’s lack of reaction to Gen Chiwenga’s “extraordinary” statement, which he described as “a final warning” to Mr Mugabe to rein in his wife and the Zanu-PF faction behind her.

“This is like a game of poker where they’re watching each other’s moves but nobody is playing their hand,” he said.

Additional reporting by Hudson Lockett

Get alerts on Zimbabwe when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article